Oedipus Rex – Opera-Oratorio in Two Acts after Sophocles
Oedipus – Anthony Dean Griffey
Jocasta – Waltraud Meier
Creon / Messenger – Mikhail Petrenko
Shepherd – Alexander Timchenko
Tiresias – Ilya Bannik
Jeremy Irons (narrator)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 1 May, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
In his autobiography, Stravinsky suggested that music is “essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature…”. In the two Stravinsky works presented by the New York Philharmonic as part of its extensive series “The Russian Stravinsky” the ballet Orpheus and the opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex”, Stravinsky went to great lengths to prove his point.
In these two works based upon classical Greek myths, Stravinsky imposes a degree of emotive restraint that can seem confining. In Orpheus, when he weeps for Eurydice, he is directed to turn his back to the audience and stand motionless; when the Angel of Death leads Orpheus into the underworld, the protestations of the Furies are conveyed mostly in undertones; and at the climax when Orpheus tears his bandage from his eyes and looks back at Eurydice who immediately falls dead, we hear nothing but silence. In “Oedipus Rex”, the singers are to wear masks (they did not in this performance) and are permitted only to move their arms and heads.
As for the music itself, the dramatic action is rarely characterized, except at the end of Scene Two, when Orpheus is torn apart by the Bacchantes, which contains a few moments of agitation and relatively loud dynamics. For “Oedipus Rex” Stravinsky insisted upon a Latin text, suggesting that it “had the great advantage of giving me a medium not dead, but turned to stone and so monumentalised as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarisation.” The vocal writing, too, seems occasionally to have “turned to stone”. This is not to suggest that the work is devoid of emotion, but that the composer treats his subject more with reverence than passion. These works were written at the beginning and toward the end of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, in which he called upon musical styles from earlier periods to imbue his music with a sense of dignity while maintaining a controlled sense of dramatic expression.
Orpheus, written in 1947, was significantly influenced by Monteverdi, who wrote an opera on the same story. In collaboration with George Balanchine, Stravinsky fashioned a ballet that treats its subject almost as a ritual offering, in keeping with stylistic character of the Renaissance. Instrumentation is generally light, to enable the harp (representing Orpheus) to cut through; textures are sparse, often creating an air of mystery with the use of string tremolos and dark-sounding chords in the depths of the brass. Cast in three scenes that present the essentials of the story without much elaboration, the ballet leaves much of the action to the listener’s imagination when presented without a staging. Only in the Bacchantes’s pummelling of the hero (shades of The Rite of Spring) does the music attempt to engage with the action. Even the whooping string chords mimetic of the Furies’s dance in Scene Two sound rather temperate to describe what would surely by a riotous scene.
Gergiev seemed intent upon ensuring technical accuracy and cohesiveness, eschewing expressivity in-keeping with Stravinsky’s philosophy. The opening scene was appropriately meditative and a mysterious atmosphere hovered over much of the first scene. Rhapsodic treatment of lyrical lines in strings, a plaintive oboe duet and sombre trumpet calls marked the more extensive second scene. The brief final scene, ‘Apotheosis of Orpheus’, seemed tepidly mournful so as to remain true to Stravinsky’s purported non-expressionism.
In “Oedipus Rex”, from 1927, but revised around the time that Orpheus was composed, Stravinsky collaborated with Jean Cocteau. Although Stravinsky attempts to present this well-known ancient drama without excessive emotion, he uses musical material to characterize the dramatis personae. Thus, Oedipus’s vocal line is often florid and melismatic, evidencing his pride and self-confidence (the source of his downfall). The role was forcefully sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, although his rather light timbre may not be perfectly suited to this role. The music for Creon is more straightforward, his frank simplicity and unadorned vocal line clearly expressed in C major. The vocal writing for Jocasta, who first appears in Act Two, contrasts strongly with that of the other soloists. Her efforts to rebuke Oedipus and Tiresias for their arguing in public while scorning the efficacy of the oracles seem to be sourced in her increasing fear that a terrible tragedy awaits her. In her expansive aria, ‘Nonne erubescite’ she becomes almost hysterical in trying to prevent Oedipus from seeking further for the truth.
Waltraud Meier was a fine dramatic soprano, and sang admirably, although she had difficulty in projecting above the orchestra in the mid- and low-ranges of her voice. Her delivery was otherwise assured and her warnings to Oedipus, sung in the upper register, projected with tonal brilliance and dynamic thrust. Surprisingly, the two basses, Mikhail Petrenko and Ilya Bannik, seemed unable to project their voices beyond the middle of the auditorium when singing in low range. Some of the soloists tried to act out the emotions the text expressed, which may not have been in keeping with Stravinsky’s dictum. The appearance of Jeremy Irons as the narrator was a treat. A consummate actor, he read the intermittent explanations of the plot with dramatic flair and occasional telling irony, although sometimes he jumped in too quickly to give us time to absorb the impact of the music.
The Mariinsky Chorus’s performance was especially engaging. From the very opening, Gergiev seemed intent on letting the singers assert themselves with little restraint, which they did with substantial power and remarkable clarity. Except for some metrically complex passages in Act Two, the New York Philharmonic was generally on the mark, strings sounding vibrant and brass clear and forceful. One wonders if any balance check was taken in rehearsal to enable Gergiev to adjust the dynamic levels so that some of the singers could be better heard in strong tutti passages. Some tempos seemed unduly brisk, such as during Jocasta’s aria and the closing moments of the work. But neither these relatively minor flaws, nor any concern about Stravinskian principles of expressivity in music, detracted from the sterling performances.